Early Missionary Work in Italy and Switzerland
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“Early Missionary Work in Italy and Switzerland,” Ensign, Aug. 1982, 35

Early Missionary Work in Italy and Switzerland

In October 1849, nearly two years after the Saints’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, missionaries were called to take the gospel to Italy, Denmark, Sweden and France, and to continue the work in England. Lorenzo Snow, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of less than a year, traveled with others to England on his way to the Continent. Then accompanied by Joseph Toronto, a Utahn of Sicilian ancestry, and Thomas B. H. Stenhouse, a recent British convert, he traveled on to Italy, arriving on 23 June 1850.

They found success among a Protestant group known as the Waldenses, who lived in the Piedmont region of Italy. Elder Snow wrote and published The Voice of Joseph, a missionary tract which circulated widely throughout northern Italy. He also directed the translation of the Book of Mormon into Italian.

Having received a commission to introduce the gospel into other nations if circumstances permitted, he set apart Elder Stenhouse in November 1850 as president of the Swiss Mission and sent him on his way over the Alps to Switzerland. Following is a photographic outline of places, people, and some events that were significant in establishing the gospel in Italy and Switzerland.

Elder Lorenzo Snow

Elder Lorenzo Snow, who introduced the restored gospel in Italy. He left his family in humble circumstances in Salt Lake City. “Did the people of Italy but know the heart-rending sacrifices we have made for their sakes,” he wrote, “they could have no heart to persecute.”1

Book of Mormon advertisement

Book of Mormon advertisement that preceded the elders to the city of Basel, in the German-speaking area of Switzerland. It was placed by a book dealer who thought the book might sell.


  1. Eliza R. Snow Smith, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1884), p. 123.

  2. Smith., p. 121.

  3. Smith., p. 126.

  4. Smith., p. 129.

  5. Millennial Star, 13:25.

  6. Smith, p. 176.

  7. See Andrew Jensen, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols., (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1901), 3:305–306, 4:386.

  8. John Kunz, Jr., “Personal Journal, 1884–1886,” pp. 21, 38, 56. Located in the Brigham Young University Library.

  • James R. Christianson, associate professor of Church History at Brigham Young University and father of nine children, teaches Sunday School in his Provo, Utah, ward.

Photography by James R. Christianson

After arriving in Italy, Elder Snow was impressed to begin laboring among the Waldenses, a Protestant group located at the base of the Alps in the Luzerne Valley. He concentrated his efforts in La Tour, presently the city of Torre Pellice. The people there were remnants of a religious sect founded in France in the twelfth century by Peter Waldo. Driven by persecution, they had sought refuge in northern Italy. Their isolated location enabled them to retain their religious traditions and preserve several dialects of their native tongue.

Impressed with the prospect of success among these people, Elder Snow wrote soon after his arrival: “With a heart full of gratitude, I find an opening is presented in the valleys of Piedmont, when all other parts of Italy are closed against our efforts. I believe that the Lord has there hidden up a people amid the Alpine mountains, and it is the voice of the Spirit that I shall commence something of importance.”2

During the months he was in La Tour, Elder Snow and his companions often climbed Mt. Castelluzzo, which he named “Mt. Brigham,” to visit the Waldensen families. He loved its natural beauty: “The clouds often enwrap these mighty eminences,” he wrote, “and hide their frowning grandeurs from our view. At other times they are covered with snow, while at their feet the vine and fig tree are ripening their fruit.”3

It was to this mountain that Elder Snow went to plead for the life of a three-year-old boy who was near death. Reflecting on the urgency of their work, which, as yet, was moving slowly, Elder Snow regarded the healing of the child as a circumstance “of vast importance. I know not of any sacrifice which I can possibly make, that I am not willing to offer, that the Lord might grant our requests.”4 Upon returning from the mountain, he administered to the child, who, by the next day, was completely healed.

Old homes of the Waldenses, high on the mountainside. Active missionary labors continued among these people from September 1850 until 1853, when the missionaries left to proselyte in other areas.

The harvest among the Waldenses for which they worked and prayed didn’t materialize on the scale they had hoped. Weighted down by religious tradition, few who heard the message—either Protestant or Catholic—were equal to the challenges faced by those who dared break with the past. However, of the 211 Italians who joined the Church during those first years of missionary work in Italy, most of the converts were Waldenses. Most who remained faithful emigrated to America.

A Waldensian home on Mt. Castelluzzo. The missionaries were heartsick to see the poverty among the people. A crop failure contributed to their already desperate plight. And the hardships of the people worked a hardship on the elders. “Think not,” Elder Snow wrote in a letter, “that we are amid the marble palaces, nor surrounded by the choice productions of art which adorn many portions of this wonderous land. Here, a man must preach from house to house, and from hovel to hovel. Here, many a dwelling has no glass in the windows, and from the scarcity of fuel there is often no fire upon the hearth; and during the long winter evenings, the family are huddled together in the stable among the cattle, for the sake of a little warmth which they cannot find elsewhere.”5

High on Mt. Castelluzzo is an overhanging rock accessible only through a narrow passageway. On 19 September 1852, Elder Snow and his three missionary companions (Elder Jabez Woodard of London had joined them) climbed to the secluded spot, sang praises, offered prayers, officially organized the Church in Italy, and prophesied concerning the latter-day work. From then on, the mountain was known among members of the Church as “Mt. Brigham,” and the rock as “The Rock of Prophecy.”

Two months later, on 24 November 1850, the four elders again climbed to the “Rock of Prophecy”—to carry out additional important ordinations for the furthering of the work. Since Elder Snow felt he should leave Italy soon to take the gospel to other areas of the Continent, he ordained Elder Woodard a high priest and set him apart as presiding officer of the Church in Italy. He also ordained Elder Stenhouse a high priest and commissioned him to begin missionary work in Switzerland.

The Alps, over which Elder Stenhouse journeyed on his way to Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1850. Two months later, Elder Snow made a similar journey to work with Elder Stenhouse for a month. Trunk in hand, he crossed the mountain passes in the middle of a severe snowstorm, “scarcely knowing,” he said, “whether I was dead or alive. It is one thing to read of traveling over the backbone of Europe in the depth of winter, but doing it is quite different.”6

Geneva, Switzerland—called by Elder Stenhouse “the Protestant Rome.” This is where John Calvin and other early reformers did much of their work. When Elder Snow visited Geneva and dedicated Switzerland two months after Elder Stenhouse had arrived, he was greeted by a handful of interested persons who became the nucleus of two small branches numbering twenty persons by the time he returned a year later.

With the arrival of three additional elders, the work spread throughout the Protestant cantons (states). At a conference held in Geneva on 25 December 1853, it was reported that 186 persons had been baptized and that branches were functioning in Canton Zurich and Canton Baselland. (Photography by R. Gordon, courtesy of Globe Photos.)

The street in Geneva where Elder Stenhouse lived, 1851.

The first person taught the gospel in Switzerland was a shoemaker. Here he receives the gospel from Elder Stenhouse.

The Ruben family, the first to join the Church in Switzerland. Significant among the early converts were a retired minister who served as translator, Elder Stenhouse’s landlord, a shoemaker, a newspaper publisher, a hospital administrator, and a member of the Swiss aristocracy. These people proved vital to a successful beginning for the Church in their land. As the need arose, their leadership, linguistic abilities, and financial resources were made available—and the work continued to progress.

The Ballif home in Lausanne, Switzerland. Missionaries moved into the third floor of this home, being spared much hardship by the kindness of the Ballifs.

Lausanne, Switzerland, where Elder Stenhouse met and baptized Serge Louis Ballif, an ancestor to President Ezra Taft Benson.

Serge Louis Ballif and his wife, Elise. A wealthy man, Brother Ballif gave of his money freely to support the missionaries and publish tracts and newsletters. He served as a local missionary, baptized several families, and then emigrated to America. He later returned to Switzerland as a missionary in 1860, and as mission president from 1879 to 1881. His son, Serge Frederick, served as president of the Swiss and German Mission from 1905 to 1909, and from 1921 to 1923.7

First missionaries in German-speaking Switzerland: Georg Meyer and Jacob Secrist. Until they arrived, missionaries had spoken French.

William Budge, one of the earliest missionaries in Switzerland. A Scot, he was arrested and imprisoned repeatedly for preaching, and was finally expelled from the country. After leaving Switzerland, he went to Dresden, Germany, where he taught Karl G. Maeser.

Mission office in Bern, Switzerland, 1869.

In 1869, with Karl G. Maeser as mission president, Church headquarters in Switzerland were moved to the city of Bern. (Photography courtesy of Three Lions.)

Many of the early Swiss converts came from the Alpen Highlands. They were mostly rural people. As the proselyting of the elders and members became increasingly successful (20 baptisms in 1851, 50 in 1852, and 116 in 1853), the attention of the clergy and the press was drawn to the Church. Local press coverage of Latter-day Saint history and doctrine caused opposition to intensify. Throughout the 1860s, official restrictions and violence against foreign elders placed the burden of effective preaching in the hands of local missionaries. A courageous response by native members continued the Church’s momentum, however. But disaffections were also common, due to the negative press, fines, imprisonment, banishment, and physical abuse members and missionaries sometimes received.

But in 1864, the Swiss government declared that the Latter-day Saints were to be recognized as a Christian sect, giving the Church official religious freedom and right of assembly. Later the Federal Council of Switzerland stated that Latter-day Saints had as much right to the protection of the federal constitution as the adherents of any other faith.

The Swiss people gradually increased their tolerance towards the Church, possibly because of their traditional reverence for individual freedom—and their boredom with the anti-Mormon rhetoric pouring from the press and pulpit. By 1875, several organized groups of Church members were found in the Protestant cantons (states). By the 1880s and through the turn of the century, baptisms and the number of foreign elders in the country were at high levels and the Church continued to grow at a steady rate. After fifty years of proselyting, there were over one thousand faithful members in Switzerland. In addition, 2,060 had emigrated to America. (Photography by Peter Van Dyck, courtesy of Photounique.)

Karl G. Maeser walked many miles to this home in Zwischenflu, Switzerland, where he taught and converted members of the Kunz family in 1868.

John Kunz, Jr., who upon first contact refused the gospel. Years later, he declared: “It took a Karl Maeser to teach me the truth.” Brother Kunz emigrated to America, returned to Switzerland as a missionary, and raised a large family in Idaho, typifying the early European convert to the Church.

Excerpts from Brother Kunz’ journal reveal much concerning the character of the Church and the nature of missionary work in rural Switzerland in the late nineteenth century:

“febr. 9, 1885, Wrote Home and after Dinner started to visit Sister Spory it Commence to rain and Snow terribly Visited Gottlief Eshler, Brother of Arnold in Montpelier, he is in Weisenburg he looks to be a honest Chap. We had quiet a chat together, went on further got to a stable and prayed to the Lord to bless me on my stormy Journey and felt like asking him for shelter, which I soon found in the house of Brother Sporys father-inlaw … sister Spory had Called me into the house and she with her Mother comenced on me about Temple building claiming it was for some unholy secret purpose of the Priesthood, I had plenty to do, for I soon found I had it up with a well posted and educated lady but I defended the Cause of Zion as best possible and Came out Victor. I soon had a nice Meal before me and was treated fine.

“Aug 9 … I walked to Gumligen and took train to Longman and then walked to Brother Eglia in Eisekachen after dinner the saints came and we had a good turnout for a meeting and although no strangers there had quite some hard work with Brother and Sister Beutler whom I was endeavoring to Show the nessessity to Emigrate but failed in my attempt for they concluded not to go as they were to much in Debt.

“I stayed over night but to my disappointment for the fleas where in my Bed by the hundreths but it got Morning. Aug 10. after walking a ways I went into Tnulee and stripped naked and declared a war for the fleas and so it was for it took me hours to clean myself.

“Aug. 12. I walked to Kapf by Reidenback and was badly wanted for there was some Relatives on a visit, that wished to hear Mormonism explained which however I did and was feeling first rate. got a splendid Bed and Rest.”8